how to get web design clients without a portfolio

How to Build a Web Design Portfolio Out of Thin Air

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Let’s get something out of the way before we begin.

Building a web design portfolio from scratch takes a ton of hard work and patience.

There is no way around this.

There are some tips, tricks and ideas you can use to speed up this process. But there is no escaping the Upward Spiral of learning, committing, then DOing.

And that’s a good thing.

One of my favorite things about Stephen R Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is how he takes complex subjects and turns them into simple visuals and illustrations.

This is where the Upward Spiral comes from.

This is the eternal process your personal and professional development will take. It’s in the form of a spiral because it never ends.

It’s like a barbershop pole.

Learn, commit, do. Then start again.

My job with this post (and really, all of my posts) is to help you with the learning. And maybe even some committing every now and then.

But the DOing. I can’t do anything for you there. That’s all up to you.

So after I give you these 4 ideas for building a web design portfolio, I’m going to leave the rest in your capable hands. ????

But first, there’s another uncomfortable topic we need to discuss…

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Sorry friend, you’re gonna have to work for free

It’s true. At some point or another, you’re going to have do some work for free.

I did. And almost every other web designer I know has done so as well.

It’s simply the reality of the web design industry today. Competition is fierce, trust is low, and client confusion runs rampant.

It’s extremely difficult to convince someone to take a chance on you when you have zero proven work experience to showcase your web design skills.

Not impossible, of course. You can get your first web design clients without a portfolio, but you’ll have to benefit from a very specific set of circumstances to do it.

It is simply far quicker to build a web design portfolio from scratch by putting in some work for free.

To get you started on how to do that, I have 4 quick ideas for you:

Idea #1: Pre-build websites for small businesses on Google Maps

This is a little trick I came up with on my own. I’ve mentioned it a few times on here, and it’s worth repeating.

Google Maps is a treasure trove of potential new web design clients.

Every small business needs to be on Google Maps. Particularly service-based ones like restaurants, dentists, massage therapists, barbers, etc…

Getting 5-star reviews on Google is their bread and butter.

These glowing reviews set them apart from their competition and force Google to pay attention to them, improving their SEO and catapulting their website up the Google rankings.

But reviews aren’t everything. These small businesses need more than that. They need a website to prove their legitimacy to people who find them.

When I’m searching for a restaurant, I want to know what their menu looks like, if they have any daily specials, how much it costs for a fresh pint, if they showcase live music, and whether or not the “vibe” is to my liking.

Their website will show me everything I want to know.

If done right, that is.

As a budding web designer, if I click on this link on a business’ Google profile…

And discover a website that looks like this…

I start to salivate.

Not because of the tasty Chinese food, but because of the potential opportunity to grow my web design portfolio.

So, here’s your plan:

  1. Scan for small businesses on Google Maps in your local area.
  2. Target small businesses who have a website, but it’s outdated and ugly.
  3. Pull all of the content you can from their site. (remember, we’re just borrowing it)
  4. Use that content to rebuild their website into a beautiful, modern site worthy of attention.
  5. Sell them their brand new, ready-to-launch website.
  6. If they’re not interested in buying, offer to give it to them for free, in exchange for a Google review and the rights to showcase it in your web design portfolio.
  7. Rinse and repeat.

You may actually be able to sell a few websites with this method. I know I have.

And even if you’re not, and you only manage to give them away for free, you will rapidly build up your portfolio and your own personal Google My Business profile will be populated with positive reviews.

This is the fastest portfolio-building idea I’ve come up with to date. It’s why I put it at #1.

Idea #2: Build websites for your friends and family

Surely you know some friends or family that run small businesses of their own.

Offer to build them a website for free. Then, get their feedback on it.

This will help you refine and sharpen your web design skills, and allow you to charge more money for your websites once you are getting clients on your own.

Depending on your current skill level, you may even want to start with this idea before any of the others. Including the Google Maps one.

It’s critical that you have a clear value to offer your clients.

You need to be able to differentiate yourself from the myriads of other so-called “web designers” who lack the necessary skills to give their clients what they want.

This idea will help you get there faster.

If you don’t have any friends or family who run small businesses… then you need to make new friends.


Idea #3: Volunteer to build websites for charities

Yes, another opportunity to work for free… But it’s for charity this time!

We all know charities are operating on tight budgets. They need to be transparent about where their donations are going, and many can’t afford to get a high quality website made because their donors don’t see the value in it.

By offering to build a free website for a charity, you accomplish many things:

  1. You build up your portfolio
  2. You gain a high profile review for your web design business
  3. You continue to improve your web design skills
  4. You do a great thing for a charity in need!
  5. You might be able to get a big ol’ tax write-off at the end of the year, as it can be considered a donation
  6. You may even get a high quality .org backlink to your own website! (SEO juice FTW)

How is this not a great idea?

Idea #4: Build websites for fake businesses in your head

You’re a web designer. We all know you’ve got a busy imagination in that adorable head of yours.

Maybe you’ve even come up with some other business ideas. A popup shop, Etsy store, clothing brand, or that weird “poop-themed cafe” idea that came to you at 3am after you drank too much coffee that one day.

(Btw, that poop-themed cafe is a very real cafe in Toronto, and they desperately need a proper website. It’s time for that DOing part we talked about! ????)

If you’ve got the ideas, why not built a website for them?

No one said your portfolio could only be made up of published websites.

You could design a website for a fake restaurant and publish it on a free subdomain. Web design tools like Weebly, Squarespace, Wix and Shopify all offer the ability to do this.

And if you’re using WordPress, you could make up a subdomain or IP address from your server.

Build the site, take some screenshots, and voila! You’ve got another new website to add to your portfolio.

No matter what, these ideas will take consistency and hard work

Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes. – Oscar Wilde

Starting a web design business is easy. Growing it into a successful web design business is not.

The beginning is always the hardest part. Building a web design portfolio is an essential part of showcasing your skills to the world. And it’s also one of the most challenging.

Many people will tell you that you should never work for free. To “always charge what you’re worth“.

I think that’s wrong.

Frankly, if you don’t have a portfolio, you’re not worth anything in the eyes of a potential client. Especially when your competitors already have portfolios that they can glance through.

Roll up those sleeves. Practice your web design skills. Build some sites for free.

It sucks in the beginning, but it only gets easier from there. I promise.

Learn, commit, do.

Picture of Patrick Antinozzi

Patrick Antinozzi

This post was written by an organic being with the help of AI. Pretty wild that I have to disclaim that, eh? I'm just trying to provide value. It's not always the prettiest or the most succinct.

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